Can Thai Theravada nuns and Roman Catholic women priests shatter the clerical glass ceiling?
But at that very moment in our conversation, a volunteer at the wat came in, knelt before Dhammananda and asked if she needed anything. Some Catholics believe a priest follows a higher calling and should be treated differently—that the priest is holier, closer to God. Some Catholics bow and kiss the rings of their bishops. Yet these gestures of respect also reflect power. How should women view them?
As a priest, I am often asked, sometimes in jest, “Should we address you as Mother instead of Father?” I answer, please call me Victoria. Certainly this is an attempt to level the playing field. Yet the lay-cleric divide is difficult to dislodge: patriarchal religious traditions have imposed hierarchical differences that clerics too often uphold, whether by action or acquiescence. Thai Theravada nuns and Roman Catholic women priests who face the challenge of legitimacy from their religious hierarchies live a complicated tension between people’s expectations of them and their own desire to empower everyone.
At the two daily meals taken by Dhammananda and the samaneris, I noticed that they sat separately from the rest of the community and took food first. Later she explained, “If you don’t do it, they don’t consider you ordained! We are expected to do whatever male monks do. But we try other ways. For example, people come to a monk for a blessing. But I tell people, ‘The blessing comes from what you have done, not from me.’ And in the same way, enlightenment is reached not because you are ordained, but by what you do.” She thought for a moment and then went on. “As for the table and the food, yes, this is power, you are right. But the question is, how are you going to use power? What I do is take very little food. Also, I give some of my share to the last person who is served.” That very day, at lunch, I was the last person to take food. As I sat down to eat, one of the volunteers brought me half an avocado. “Dhammananda wants to share this with you, Victoria.” It made the avocado even more delicious— a symbol, perhaps, of sharing power.
There are certainly differences between the movements for women’s ordination in Thai Theravada Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. Bhikkhunis are monastics and are celibate. In contrast, women priests can be married, partnered or single, homosexual or heterosexual, celibate or not. The educational preparation of candidates, while often revealing shared values, follows distinct guidelines in each tradition. Although Chatsumarn Kabilsingh had a Ph.D. when she received the first level of ordination as a samaneri and two years later that of bhikkhuni, for other women such a high level of education is not necessary. What is important is that a woman wishing to become a bhikkhuni must live two years in a sangha and spend two years after full ordination in a sangha with her teacher. In the new Catholic tradition of women’s ordination, candidates must have a Master of Divinity or its equivalent, complete ten units of our formation program, pass a criminal background check, and complete a psychological evaluation.
Each of these movements for women’s ordination is gaining ground with a common momentum, despite marginalization by the official body of their respective religions. Today in Chiang Mai (the largest city in northern Thailand), there are 24 bhikkhunis and samaneris headed by Venerable Nandayani, who graduated from Chiang Mai University with a degree in science. Perhaps because they are farther away from Bangkok and the seat of government, these bhikkhunis are accepted by senior monks in the north. Some of these monks are mentors for samaneris. On April 6, 2009, 36 women—34 Thai, one Dutch, and one Austrian—underwent temporary ordination at Wat Songdhammakalyani. In the Roman Catholic woman priest movement, more women are being ordained each year.
Both movements for ordaining women live in a dynamic tension. We are living in the “not yet” right now. We are embraced and supported by people at the grassroots of our religions. We are shunned by hierarchies that are simply out of touch. Yet we live each day as bhikkhunis and priests, walking with people on their spiritual journeys, ministering to all. As Dhammananda says, “My shaved head is my calling card. It says, ‘What can I do for you?’”
Victoria Rue, Ph.D., is a lecturer in Women’s Studies and Comparative Religious Studies at San José State University and a Roman Catholic woman priest. Her trip to Thailand was made possible by grants from The Sister Fund and San José State University. Rue’s website is victoriarue.com. The websites for these two movements are thaibhikkhunis.org and romancatholicwomenpriests.org.
Photos courtesy of Victoria Rue